Civil Rights and Wrongs

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Harry S. Ashmore, Civil Rights and Wrongs: A Memoir of Race and Politics 1944-1996, 1994. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. 495 p. ISBN 1-57003-187-8


In Civil Rights and Wrongs: A Memoir of Race and Politics 1944-1996, Harry S. Ashmore traces the development of the civil rights movement from the point of view of a Southern newspaper editor closely tied to events. He prefaces his account with a brief history of the early black efforts to deal with white racism. Starting with the accommodationist stance of Booker T. Washington and moving on to the opposing Niagara Movement of W. E. B. DuBois, he shows how early black leaders moved toward a strategy of agitation and protest.

Ashmore finds that the New Deal never lived up to its promise to deal with structural economic and social problems because it did not face up to the underlying racial issues. (p. 27) He finds that Eleanor Roosevelt “concluded that desegregation was the only effective approach to dealing with minority problems,” but President Roosevelt was determined not to alienate Southern congressional leaders whose votes he needed for his programs. (p. 52) Nevertheless, he did issue an executive order in June 1942 mandating nondiscrimination in defense industries and setting up a Fair Employment Practices Commission in response to A. Phillip Randolph’s threat to stage a mass march on Washington. (p. 53) President Truman took action to desegregate the armed forces and set up the President’s Commission on Civil Rights. When the Commission’s report, To Secure These Rights, was issued in 1948, Ashmore says, “it contained recommendations that in due course would change the contours of race relations in the United States.” (p. 59) The recommendations included an anti-lynching law, elimination of discriminatory voter registration requirements, fair employment practice laws, creation of a Civil Rights Commission, elimination of restrictive real estate covenants, and an end to discrimination in public and private schools and colleges. Unfortunately, the report was ahead of its time. As Ashmore says, “The Truman committee’s report set the agenda for the mass civil rights movement that emerged a decade later, but it hardly accorded with the political reality the president faced on the eve of a campaign for election in his own right.” (p. 66)

Southerners rebelled against Truman’s civil rights agenda and formed the Dixiecrats’ third party movement to oppose his election in 1948. The movement failed, but, Ashmore says, “civil rights quickly disappeared from the national agenda in the face of the compelling issues that engulfed the Truman administration.” (p. 81) The Communist takeover of China, the North Korean invasion of South Korea, the development of thermonuclear weapons, the Berlin blockade, and the Russian nuclear bomb explosion were some of the major events that diverted attention from civil rights. Southerners supported Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election, and he won in a rout. Civil rights was not a major campaign issue. Ashmore states, “Eisenhower had no mandate to deal with issues that had not been raised – and in the case of civil rights he would do his best to minimize the responsibility that was finally thrust on him.” (p. 96)

At this time Ashmore was Executive Editor of the Arkansas Gazette and a Trustee of the Arkansas State Teachers College. While the Supreme Court was considering arguments in the Brown school desegregation case, he was asked to participate in a study commissioned by the Ford Foundation on the effects of the dual education system in the South. He wrote an introductory summary volume of the findings, The Negro and the Schools, in which he said, “In the long sweep of history the public school cases before the Supreme Court may be written down as the point at which the South cleared the last turning in the road to reunion – the point at which finally, and under protest, the region gave up its peculiar institutions and accepted the prevailing standards of the nation at large as the legal basis for its relationship with its minority race.” (p. 100) As Ashmore says, “The Brown decision produced an automatic roar of defiance in the Deep South.” (p. 103) He traces the struggle over implementation of the decision. In the follow up Brown II decision, the Supreme Court deferred to local authorities and set the oxymoronical standard of “all deliberate speed” for action. (p. 111)

Eisenhower lent no support to desegregation efforts, and the federal courts interpreted Brown as only forbidding government enforced segregation and not requiring government action to desegregate. However, Eisenhower’s hand was forced by events in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1954 when he sent federal troops to protect black students entering Little Rock High School. Ashmore believes the media portrayal of the Little Rock confrontation to be overdone, but he finds, “Little Rock became the symbol of brutal, dead-end resistance to the minimum requirements of racial justice.” (p. 131)

The next phase of the civil rights movement sought to end segregation in place of public accommodation. Ashmore says, “This phase of the civil rights movement was launched by blacks on their own motion, and carried forward under leaders who emerged from black churches to stage-manage mass confrontations with the white leadership.” (p. 134) The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 started the movement and made Martin Lither King a national celebrity. Ashmore quotes King as saying at this point, “Nonviolent resistance emerged as the technique of the movement.” (p. 136)

Ashmore discusses President Kennedy’s lukewarm commitment to civil rights. Southern Democrats had helped elect Kennedy and supported his Cold War foreign policies. Kennedy faced his first major racial crisis when James Meredith applied for admission to the University of Mississippi. It was a bloody confrontation that ended with two fatalities and many wounded. The Kennedys demonstrated that their willingness to go along with segregationist politicians did not extend to the toleration of violence. The Freedom Rides of 1961 tested the Kennedy administration further as officials sought to defuse the situation. Mob attacks shown on TV screens built popular support for the campaign to desegregate motels. The 1963 confrontation in Birmingham brought more public exposure to the brutal side of Southern racism. Ashmore says, “Birmingham touched off a nationwide wave of reaction that forced the Kennedys to recognize that they could no longer temporize with such overt manifestations of racism.” (p. 149) President Kennedy addressed the nation on June 11, 1963 saying, “The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city . . . that cannot be quieted by token moves or talks.” (p. 149) On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King addressed 250,000 people on the mall in Washington with his “I Have a Dream” speech. Ashmore states, “The addresses by Kennedy and King marked the valedictory of the Southern phase of the civil rights movement.” (p. 150)

Ashmore became a director of the Fund for the Republic, a Ford Foundation offshoot that funded efforts to advance the cause of civil rights. It established the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in 1959, and Ashmore was appointed a senior fellow. He then spent time in New York City studying the city’s black population, which stood at 20%. At this time black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell was preaching activism against the racism in the North and declaring that Southern racism was not the major problem. Ashmore quotes Powell, “But when you leave the South, where only one third of the Negroes now live, you have a revolution of the masses. Not the classes. And that revolution is interested in schools, housing, jobs. And civil rights legislation will not help them at all.” (p. 158) Another Harlem black, Malcolm X soon eclipsed Powell with his doctrine of separatism. In 1963 James Baldwin exalted the politics of rage in his provocative book, The Fire Next Time. Ashmore summed up his conclusions on Northern racial polarity in The Other Side of Jordan, saying, “it is no more possible to conduct a rational debate on the race issue within the [northern] Negro community than it is within the impassioned and disturbed white community of the South.” (p. 167)

Upon assuming the presidency in November 1963 following Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and inaugurated the Great Society programs. He intervened with Governor George Wallace to protect the marchers from Selma to Montgomery and afterwards said, “What happened in Selma is part of the larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America.. . . . Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” (p. 174) Johnson won an overwhelming victory in the election of 1968 and viewed it as a mandate to implement his vision of the Great Society. He created HUD with the first black cabinet officer as its head to rebuild the nation’s cities, expanded federal aid to education, expanded Social Security to cover basic health services, launched economic development programs, and strengthened the FEPC. He also declared a “War on Poverty.”

Meanwhile the civil rights crusade had attracted college students who decided to become militant. They volunteered for service in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer, and before the year was out, student protest became a national phenomenon. However, the student movement became bifurcated between those promoting civil rights and those simply rebelling against authority. Ashmore finds that on balance the student protest movement contributed little to the cause of civil rights, saying,” indeed, a convincing case can be made that reaction against its excesses moved the political establishment in the opposite direction.” (p. 187)

Johnson saw the need to actively assist blacks in attaining their rights and not just pass laws to end discrimination. Influenced by Patrick Moynihan, he decried the breakdown of the black family and stressed its importance. Moynihan had pointed out statistics showing a marked increase in black illegitimate births that evidenced family disintegration. This thesis aroused a storm of protest from black leaders who saw it as “victimizing the victim.” The Moynihan controversy splintered the civil rights movement, but it was soon supplanted by the eruption of violence in the cities, starting with the Watts riot in Los Angeles after the filmed police beating of Rodney King. The riots produced a rapid decline in support for the civil rights movement, as expectations that Southern black migrants free of the legal barriers of segregation would be assimilated into the larger society were ddisappointed. Ashmore finds that the “melting pot” scenario did prove applicable to middle class blacks who promptly separated themselves from the illiterate or semiliterate working poor, the underclass that had to be dealt with in a second phase of the civil rights movement. (p. 193) A prime objective of the civil rights movement had been the raising of consciousness of downtrodden blacks, but the manifestations of black consciousness in the inner cities were not helpful and produced a backlash. (pp. 194-95)

As the Vietnam War heated up, student protest against it became a full-fledged political movement. Ashmore says, “The rising tide of popular opposition to the Vietnam War also swamped the civil rights movement, already beset by white backlash against continuing outbreaks of ghetto violence.” (p. 202) The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy along with the shooting of George Wallace added to the tremendous turbulence of the times. Opposition to the war forced Johnson to withdraw from the 1968 presidential race. Nixon won the presidency and proceeded to wind down the unpopular war. Nixon sought to implement a New Federalism whereby the cumbersome state and local welfare system would be replaced by a federal program. However, the almost universal de facto segregation in housing concentrated blacks in squalid quarters, and public housing programs did nothing to change the situation. As Ashmore says, "But despite the billions presumably invested in their clearance, the black slums endured and continued to deteriorate.” (p. 241)

A 1968 Supreme Court decision addressed the reality of residential segregation and its impact on efforts to integrate schools. In 1970 in the Swann case, the court upheld for the first time the concept of busing to achieve racial balance in schools. This attack on the neighborhood school was divisive and polarized opinion against the desegregation orders. Nixon deemed the climate right for exploiting white resentment and declared himself against forced busing. In adopting a Southern Strategy to enlist the support of unreconstructed Southerners, Nixon abandoned his New Federalism “in favor of a return to the Old Federalism under which racial segregation had been permitted wherever a white majority insisted on it.” (p. 245) Two days after the election, he proposed a moratorium on busing. Following Nixon’s resignation Gerald Ford took office on August 9, 1974. Ford continued the dismantling of poverty programs and resistance to desegregation efforts. He refused a request from the mayor of Boston for federal marshals to assist in handling demonstrations outside city schools. Ashmore finds, “The recalcitrance of the Nixon/Ford administration effectively nullified the Supreme Court’s mandate requiring affirmative action by all branches of the federal government to end official discrimination against blacks.” (p. 256)

James Carter sought to carry the black vote nationally in the 1972 election while holding the Southern white vote. He succeeded and upon election proceeded to appoint record numbers of blacks to federal jobs. Ashmore states, “The national white majority now accepted the proposition that blacks were entitled to a higher place in American society. . . . But political support ran out when government action to achieve that end required additional expenditures, or was perceived as a threat to the advantages the status quo provided for whites.” (p. 264) Jesse Jackson launched Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) stressing the need for black responsibility and the need to strive for excellence. He was accused of reverse racism, for blaming a racist society’s victims for crimes perpetrated against them.

Ashmore discusses the problem of white flight from urban school systems but says it was not caused by desegregation efforts as commonly thought. He finds, “The fact was that the movement of the affluent away from crowded city neighborhoods began when the automobile made it feasible, and had reached flood tide before the effort to eliminate racial discrimination in the schools began.” (p. 279) City school systems failed to adapt to massive demographic changes. Ashworth blames problems in the schools on the “myth of the neighborhood school” based on “the sanctity of local control” that prevented federal action.

Ronald Reagan won the election of 1980 and launched a counterrevolution declaring, “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” (p. 297) According to Ashmore, “States’ rights equated with localism and privatization, was a primary element of Reaganomics.” He finds that while no one talked out loud about white supremacy, “it was never possible to separate racism from doctrinaire insistence that the federal government should have no role in determining social policy.” (p. 300) Ashmore is highly critical of Reagan and faults Reaganomics for ignoring poverty and racial issues on the theory that lower taxes and less government regulation would generate prosperity for all, Under Reagan there was an ideological push for repeal of fair employment policies on the ground that they constituted preferential group treatment amounting to “reverse discrimination.” Asmore accuses Reagan of calling for a halt to the federal effort to achieve a racially integrated society. He also finds that Reagan ignored the evidence of a national urban crisis. Reagan reversed efforts to deal with poverty through income redistribution. He also sought to overturn court desegregation orders, dilute the Voting Rights Act, cancel open housing guidelines, and vitiate enforcement agencies.

When George Bush ran for President in 1988, his campaign used the mantle of “family values as an umbrella to cover opposition to all forms of government action intended to protect the civil rights and entitlements of minorities and the female majority.” (p. 371) Bush continued the policies of Reagan. Bill Clinton, elected in 1992, benefited from disillusionment with government’s failure to deal with social and economic issues. Clinton proceeded immediately to promote policies favorable to abortion rights and to seek to allow homosexuals in the military. He next sought to appoint gays and blacks to high offices. His appointment of Lani Guinier to serve as assistant attorney general for civil rights provoked a firestorm as she was maligned as the “quota queen.” Gridlock developed in Congress as Republicans filibustered administration proposals. The failure of Clinton’s far-reaching national health care proposal was a crippling blow. Clinton defeated Dole in the 1996 election despite a growing number of scandals. He adopted a centrist position and “saw his mission as mending, not ending, the social safety net, while preserving safeguards against racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination.” (p. 442) He reformed the welfare system. Ashmore glosses over Clinton's scandal problems and generally give him high marks for promoting civil rights.


Dave Smith, Fall 2006

Harry S. Ashmore’s book is a political history emphasizing the political implications of the civil rights movement. As such, it presents an interesting contrast to The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement by Aldon Morris in which the author stressed the organization and planning of black groups confronting the political establishment in the South. Ashmore’s book is a top-down study of civil rights politics, emphasizing the role of civil rights in presidential politics from the Roosevelt administration to the Clinton administration.

Ashmore demonstrates a clear liberal Democratic bias in his frequent criticisms of Republican administrations. He is particularly harsh in his assessment of Ronald Reagan. In discussing Reaganomics, Ashmore says, “There is no evidence that Reagan had ever given serious thought to economic theory, or, for that matter, practice.” (p. 298) He is very critical of blacks who supported Reagan’s position that blacks had all the legal rights they needed and had to advance their own welfare through individual and collective action rather than through government programs. He says, “This kind of social Darwinism had a special attraction for blacks who abandoned their peers to enlist in the Reagan revolution.” (p. 344)

Like his view of Reagan, Ashmore’s characterization of other presidents is stereotypical, e.g. Eisenhower as dilatory and ineffective, Kennedy as detached, Nixon as expedient, etc. He recounts events with little in depth analysis and no new information. He seems more interested in portraying himself as a well-connected white liberal battling the racism of the South. He recounts numerous firsthand encounters with national figures and his participation in various Ford Foundation projects to establish his credentials as an influential southern editor, but the semi-autographical nature of his account sometimes detracts from a focus on the issues. While it is a broad overview of the civil rights struggle, it’s highly personal perspective limits its effectiveness.

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